Arrow: The Surprisingly Feminist Anti-Batman

I’m beyond sick of superheroes, and Batman generally bores me to tears, so I can’t quite explain how I came to start enjoying Arrow, the CW’s TV version of the Batman-esque Green Arrow character. (Broody billionaire with a playboy persona? Check. Parentally-inflected vigilante quest for Vengeance and/or Justice, circle all that apply? Check. Humorless-lawyer childhood sweetheart who sees the world in black and white, and who’s played by a willowy, brunette Katie? Yep, that too.) Then you add the CW’s Abercrombie-model definitions of attractiveness and required teen angst (the main character’s sister is in high school but somehow runs a bar, at which she employs her wrong-side-of-the-tracks boyfriend? Whatever you say, show!), and Arrow should be a forgettable mess.

And the first season kind of was. But I started watching the second season, after a whole bunch of TV critics and bloggers gave Arrow a Most Improved Series trophy, and I have to say – it’s a blast. Here’s why:

-Its pacing is insane. Arrow hurtles towards all kinds of reveals and showdowns that I’d expect other shows to spend a full season carefully, lovingly arranging. (Cf. this week’s episode - spoilers, obviously.) I think this is most of why Arrow overcomes my superhero fatigue - yeah, it has all those tiresomely quirky, poorly-motivated villains of the week, but it regularly spends as little time as necessary on them in favor of setting up its season-long arc and having its main characters interact.

-It’s surprisingly, if spottily, feminist. Arrow hasn’t been kind to all of its female characters; there’s a lady in the refrigerator of this season’s supervillain, and you have to pity poor childhood sweetheart Laurel, who’s gotten to bounce between self-righteousness, bitterness, depression and now (sigh) pill addiction and alcoholism. (The writers apparently attended a Pills: Instant!Characterization workshop with the Nashville writers.) But Arrow has also created some super-compelling women, from the wonderfully smart yet well-adjusted Felicity Smoak, who gets to be the show’s conscience as well as its main voice of sanity and humor, to Laurel’s sister Sara, who survived the island with main character Oliver and gets to be a vigilante in her own right.

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Catching up on The Newsroom: Two solutions to the Jerry Dantana problem

It took me practically all season, but I am now caught up on The Newsroom. And I’ll reserve judgment on the two-part season finale until part two airs (except to say that I am really quite tired of Sorkin’s humorless, righteous heroes protesting how “good” they are to the women who Done Them Wrong), but let’s talk a little bit about Genoa and the season-long clusterfuck of a framing device. Because it was doomed from the beginning, but it was only in the last two episodes that I pinpointed why, exactly, I had more problems with it than just the usual objections to flashforwards and how they undercut dramatic tension.

The season-long Genoa flashforward was a particularly unfortunate choice for The Newsroom, which already struggles to make us care about the stakes of its near-past setting. We already know the outcome of pretty much every story that Will McAvoy & Co. cover, because the real press already got there – but with Genoa Sorkin had the (good) idea to let us see how his fictitious journalists cover a fictitious story, freeing them (in theory) from the boundaries of a pre-determined outcome and giving them an opportunity to be real characters, instead of Real Doll versions of TV journalists. So of course he had to undercut them, and himself, right from the start, by telegraphing the outcome to the viewers and creating the same curious lack of dramatic tension that the show has when it handles Benghazi or the 2012 elections.  

And then there’s Jerry Dantana, the newcomer who was created out of whole cloth to come into our cozy nest of bumbling heroes, to lead them astray out of righteousness before actively doing bad things to them, and then to disappear at the end of this season. I was willing to give him, and Sorkin, the benefit of the doubt – right up until the scene where Sorkin shows him manipulating the tape of the interview. That doesn’t work. There are two other ways it could have, though:

1) Remove that scene and the flashforward framing device, and it works. Dantana as the outside villain is still clumsy but more effective – he shows up, he’s smart, he’s intense, and he’s not less righteous than the characters we know and love to loathe. Maybe he even gets in on the office romantic polygon for kicks and authenticity! We the viewers don’t realize until Mac does that the tape was manipulated, and we the viewers share the heroes’ growing unease after the story airs, and then their eventual horror at having been played into airing a false report of military war crimes. Dantana otherwise isn’t a cackling, sneering villain – he’s an abrasive, savvy newcomer who fits in with the News Night clan.  And when Mac wonders to Don whether or not she should trust his instincts, it’s a genuine dramatic moment and a genuine character moment, instead of an obvious case of the Writer Knowing All and dumping buckets of dramatic irony onto his characters’ heads.

OR – and I think this would have been even more interesting —

2) Jim did it. No Dantana necessary. Give the storyline to an existing and (supposedly) sympathetic character, someone we’re already invested in. Someone Sorkin has portrayed as a hero, as the goodest of good guys. Then the speeches about chemical weapons on civilians and military torture have the ring of conviction, coming from someone we know and are inclined to think of as being on the side of righteousness. Slowly build over the season to show his conviction overtaking his judgment, to the point where, when we see him falsify the interview, it’s inevitable and horrifying and earned, dramatic character development, instead of mechanical plot development. I think Jim would have been an especially good candidate for this storyline given his role as the scolding schoolmarm to Maggie – since their failed flirtation has apparently sent her down the rabbit hole to alcoholism and one-night stands and professional screw-ups and Africa-inspired haircuts (all of which Jim has noted and scolded her for), wouldn’t it have been an interesting parallel to watch him try to recover from the almost-affair by throwing himself into his work (without the Romney bus), and then screwing up to a much greater degree?

Anyway. I have liked some of the set pieces more this season. When Sorkin gets a good round robin of signature fast-paced workplace dialogue going, he’s hard to ignore. The women, though. Did we really need to see not one but two ladies, two episodes in a row, getting so emotional they had to punch the men who wronged them? You can just see Sorkin shaking his head: “Bitches be crazy, amirite? And bad drivers, Mac!” And poor Hope Davis, whose character has gone through about four different personalities in the span of just about that many episodes, got to go from Mary Jane Watson to a painfully on-the-nose “Lady Macbeth” in her last two incarnations. Did Will even break up with her? Because Jeff Daniels delivered that line with all the mild sarcasm of someone joking with his wife that he’d divorce her for finishing the milk and not picking any more up.

newyorker:

Here’s a look at business advertisements from the magazine’s pages over the last 80 years: http://nyr.kr/144UUG6

"Wife vacation plan … just for the little woman."

newyorker:

Here’s a look at business advertisements from the magazine’s pages over the last 80 years: http://nyr.kr/144UUG6

"Wife vacation plan … just for the little woman."

(Source: newyorker.com)

"

There are no Jack Kerouacs or Holden Caulfields for girls. Literary girls don’t take road-trips to find themselves; they take trips to find men.

"Great" books, as defined by the Western canon, didn’t contain female protagonists I could admire. In fact, they barely contained female protagonists at all.

"

It’s Frustratingly Rare to Find a Novel About Women That’s Not About Love - Kelsey McKinney - The Atlantic (via oditor)

I have a lot of problems with the arguments in this essay (to pick one, I don’t particularly like Jane Eyre, but claiming that its protagonist has “no story of solitary self-discovery” makes me think you skipped the whole second half of the book). But my main objections are: Anne Shirley. Emily Starr. Laura Ingalls. Scout Finch. Kit Tyler. Turtle Wexler. Dicey Tillerman. Lucy Pevensie and Jill Pole and Polly Plummer. Many others I’m forgetting right now. You can keep your Jack Kerouacs and whiny Holden Caulfields- I had plenty of literary female protagonists to admire growing up.

(via literarynerd)

Elementary, Redux: The Irene Adler Success Story

Realizing as I watch a rerun - and I can’t think of the last time I watched a rerun besides this show and sometimes The Good Wife - that I owe Elementary an apology. Or at least, I’m very glad I kept watching after almost writing it off this fall. The final string of episodes, especially, were delightful and surprising and almost devoid of the dull procedural-itis that was such an initial problem for me. And in contrast to the first half of its season, when none of my friends really paid attention to it, Elementary's finale sparked several conversations and debates and “did you see that?” exchanges that I, obsessive television watcher that I am, didn't even have to initiate.

I especially loved what the show did with Irene. (Spoilers…)

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Orphan Black: More than just the (amazing) lead actress

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BBC America’s Orphan Black is deservedly having a moment, mostly focused on its (equally deserving) star, Tatiana Maslany. She should indeed win all the awards. But while her performances as several genetically identical but very distinct women who realize that they’re clones make the show, Orphan Black has done a lot to be worthy of those performances. Its writing is sharp and funny, its supporting characters are great and diverse and include Max Headroom playing an evil scientist, and while its pacing is unusually patient and sometimes even languid for a tightly-plotted serial drama, it has a way with a wicked payoff.* But what I love most about Orphan Black is its quiet and under-the-radar reversal of the gender norms I expect from pretty much any Critic-Appointed Serious Television Drama, especially those without some reference to women in the title.

Consider how I could generally describe the series’ first few episodes:

A young con artist, stumbling upon a conspiracy involving a serial killer and a multinational corporation’s secret scientific experiments, looks for answers by impersonating a cop and tries to protect friends and loved ones.

If I read that about a buzzy new television show (or movie), I’d automatically assume the con artist is a man, a Jesse Eisenberg or a Joseph Gordon-Levitt, wouldn’t you? Maybe he’ll have a female partner or boss at the police station, almost definitely he’ll have a female love interest and family members to protect, but his role and that of his main antagonists will be assuredly male. Orphan Black gleefully upends all of those assumptions. Its main character is a woman, and then the clones that become the other main characters are women. Part of this is casting and obviously the story’s setup – if you make your main character both a woman and a clone, you’re going to have lots of women on screen – but it’s remarkable how surrounded by other women those clones are.  Women are their friends, enemies, coworkers, lovers, mothers and children – and all of those relationships are important to the plot and to the show.

And yet men aren’t absent from or unimportant to Orphan Black. I adore Bunheads and its near-total focus on women navigating the world and their relationships with each other, but Orphan Black is a quietly more sophisticated show, because it also has an array of interesting and fully-fleshed-out male characters. They’re just the supporting characters that in many other ambitious television series would be the designated female roles: the concerned sibling (Felix), the suspicious partner (Art), the crazy ex (Vic), the kvetching spouse (Donnie) and the hot but dangerous femme fatale (homme fatal?), who possibly knows more than he’s letting on (Paul).

Orphan Black isn’t one of those designated lady-targeting ensemble soaps like Scandal or Nashville; or one of those prestigious Shows for Women, like Girls or The Good Wife; and it’s not trying to be Bunheads, with men reduced to the occasional walk-on part. I enjoy (or in the case of Girls, admire) all of those shows; I think The Good Wife is one of the smartest and most sophisticated shows, for Women or not, directly addressing gender politics and norms and realities. But its title and its approach mean that its central questions, like those of Girls and Sex and the City and Bunheads, are largely asked through the lens of What It Means To Be a Woman. It’s a totally valid and worthwhile question (and one that I, certainly, care about finding some answers to), but it’s also a limiting one.

Orphan Black asks that question, too – maternal instincts and the clones’ fertility, or lack thereof, are recurring themes – but it gets to do more. It gets to make “woman” the default norm. It gets to focus on What It Means To Be a Person. That’s traditionally a question we expect and allow only male-dominated shows to ask, because straight white man is the generally accepted standard for “everyone.” By asking that question, Orphan Black basically gets to be a gender-switched Mad Men or Breaking Bad or The Newsroom (sigh), with clones.

This is more than just passing the Bechdel test with flying colors; this is inverting it so much that if too many series (ha) took Orphan Black’s lead, we’d need an equivalent test to determine if men get enough quality screen time. This is demonstrating that good stories are good stories, regardless of the gender of the main character.

And gender isn’t the only area where Orphan Black quietly wins at diversity. Also fantastic: the matter-of-fact, quiet yet deliberate depiction of not one but two! Two! Gay characters. Neither has to announce or overexplain their sexuality, and both get as much on-screen action as the straight characters. This show does so well with avoiding tokenism. It is a largely white show among the main characters, given that about 75% of the main characters are played by Maslany, but it’s notable that two of the main supporting characters, Art and Vic, are of color. And in what again feels like a deliberate choice, the series consistently casts racially diverse extras and guest characters, from soccer-mom Allison’s neighbors and adopted children to Sarah’s birth mother.

So I’m all for the Maslany Emmy talk. I just hope that the groundswell of attention she’s getting brings more focus to the show and the other, even more surprising, ways it excels.

*Spoilers: I love that in the first five episodes, main character Sarah saw her cop clone Beth kill herself, took over Beth’s life, fooled Beth’s coworkers and boyfriend, lulled me as a viewer into thinking that the police station and its procedural flavor would be part of the show’s structure — only to have Sarah quit the force and get caught by the boyfriend, halfway through the series. And the writers knew exactly where to go from there.

The Pretty One: “Something for the Ladies.”

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So this was irritating. Last night I saw The Pretty One, Jenée LaMarque’s California version of Amélie (sweet, funny, a feature-length Anthropologie commercial; not the irritating part). The screening, at the Tribeca Film Festival, was followed by a Q&A (also not the irritating part), with the (pregnant) writer-director, the star (Zoe Kazan), many of the other cast members, a handful of producers and other crew members, including the costume designer. Kazan, in heels and a Heidi coronet-braid, ran the microphone back and forth down the conga line of cast and crew to make sure everyone could answer audience questions.

Also not the irritating part: Of the impressive dozen-person lineup on stage, about half of them, including the main creative types and at least some of the money types, were women. The film was about a woman, trying to figure out this whole life/family/romance/career/friendship thing. (Note where “romance” came in that list - central but not exclusive or even primary.) The Tribeca employee moderating the event and asking the bulk of the questions was a woman.

This was the irritating part: When the Tribeca moderator eventually asked a question about the romance in the film, she felt the need to excuse it, or excuse her asking of it, or something: “It’s something for the ladies,” she added. Right. The romance. Something for us ladies, because the rest of the film about figuring out how to be a sister and a daughter and a friend and a twin who may or may not be “the pretty one” obviously wasn’t “for the ladies.” The lady writer-director, lady star playing a lady main character, lady producer and lady costume designer weren’t there for the ladies and hadn’t said anything up to that point that could be “for the ladies.”

I’m being harsh. I’m sure it was just filler talk, one of those things you say when you’re on stage with a number of semi-famous and/or accomplished people and nervous about sounding smart with them. But it was still pretty depressing. Romance is only the province of “the ladies,” really? And apparently you can make an entire movie about what it actually means to be a lady, with ladies in front of and behind the camera, but unless it has a romantic subplot, none of it is actually going to be for, about or by us.

The Invisible War

“Those cases weren’t given to women [investigators]. … We were too sympathetic.”

The Invisible War is one of those documentaries that are hard to decide to sit down and watch. It’s about rape in the military, and systematic coverups of rape in the military. It has lots of women facing the camera and telling horrific stories, and sometimes crying, and quietly talking about their depression and their post-traumatic stress and their suicide attempts.

It’s full of infuriating details: more than one woman says that when she went to her commanding officer and reported an attack, she was charged with adultery – not because she was married, but because her rapist was.

One thing that I thought director Kirby Dick did especially well was defining the crimes in his film as violence, human-on-human brutality, disassociated from any relationship to consensual sex. The film is largely framed by the story of Kori Cioca, a Coast Guard veteran whose attacker dislocated her jaw before he raped her. Years later, Cioca waits in vain for the Veterans Affairs office to respond to her claim and fund surgery to treat her. Her story makes it more difficult to sweep the issues away as just a rape problem, just a woman problem, just a sex problem – it’s none of those. One U.S. military officer brutally attacked another, resulting in a lifetime of physical problems, and the U.S. military responded by punishing the victim.

For all of its justified outrage, The Invisible War is effectively low-key – it doesn’t try too hard to tug at your heartstrings, it doesn’t embellish its interviews with swelling music. There are moments of humor, if usually of the bleak variety. (The military’s victim-blaming “prevention” ads, which warned women not to walk around bases without a buddy, got disbelieving laughs at my screening.) It’s a sad and angry film, but not an unrelentingly grim one.

I also saw watched the Oscar-nominated documentary in one of the best possible environments: with an audience in New York, with a panel discussion afterwards, including the director and Jessica Hinves, one of the survivors interviewed in the film. She was funny and cheerful and poised, and quoted Martin Luther King, Jr. when an audience member asked if she ever “thought about taking justice into [her] own hands.” The panel discussion was a reassuring end to the movie in some ways – we the audience could have a cathartic moment, applauding the survivors and expressing our outrage to people we knew shared that outrage. I’m glad I saw The Invisible War that way, and that I saw it at all – I’m not sure I would have picked it out to watch at home, on my own, as a break at the end of the workday or over the weekend. But it is very, very worth seeing.

"It should not, after all, be a big deal that movies like “Bridesmaids” or “The Hunger Games” exist, perhaps because it should have been a bigger deal when such movies didn’t. In 1985, the comic-strip artist and memoirist Alison Bechdel first formulated what has since become known as the Bechdel test, which assesses movies according to a three-step formula. To pass the test, a film “1. has to have at least two [named] women in it 2. Who talk to each other 3. About something besides a man.” It is a stunningly simple criterion, and stunning how few movies manage to fulfill it. (Though a visit to bechdeltest.com suggests that things have been improving recently.)"

— So much to love in this A.O. Scott essay.

Bel, Freddie, Lix and Marnie: Cautiously optimistic about The Hour, season two

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I was bitterly disappointed with the first season of The Hour, otherwise known as the British Newsroom by way of Mad Men, plus spies. (And oh, those halcyon days of last October, before I knew how acute “Aaron Sorkin’s massive inability to write consistently intelligent women and/or romances” would become.) The show seems to have gotten a lot more buzz for its second season on BBC America; some of the attention is of the wary, “please don’t bring back the spies” variety, but much of it applauds The Hour's glamorous atmosphere, pedigreed cast and seeming feminist bona fides.

I was less convinced, especially after this season’s first episode. It featured nominal heroine Bel Rowley (Romola Garai) once again passively reacting to events, having lost her “spark” along with her spurned platonic soul mate (Ben Whishaw playing Ben Whishaw, eerily pubescent face not improved by a breakup beard). “She’s an excellent producer, you know,” was said of Bel late in that episode, in a throw-the-remote example of “tell, don’t show” characterization.

The second episode was much better. We actually got to see Bel working on her own, protecting her reporters and digging up information from cagey sources. It was the first time in several episodes that the show bothered to show us the professional competence of our main woman character, rather than assuring us that really, she is professionally competent, trust us, and wouldn’t you rather see her make another disastrously bad romantic decision? (Of course, the episode couldn’t help teeing up a bit of the latter. Someday I’d love to see a female journalist on television whose characterization doesn’t boil down to “professionally brilliant, personal screwup.” But at least Bel’s personal foibles this season seem like they will pale next to the implosion of her co-worker and ex-lover, Hector “Jimmy McNulty” Madden.)

And there were other promising developments. Whishaw’s Freddie Lyon is still a little too perfectly saintly and Gary Stu for me, but the second episode showed a few interestingly ugly cracks in that identity. Notably: his new wife is attacked in a hate crime, and he leaves her side to catch her attacker — not to punish him, but to convince him to come appear on Freddie’s TV program. Freddie’s crusading morality and drive to get the story at any cost was already a big part of his character and the plot in season one, but I found it interesting that we’re now shown how extreme he can be even when the stakes are relatively minor. He’s not trying to crack open a super-secret Soviet conspiracy (spies!), he’s trying to book a guest for what amounts to a talk show. This choice, the privileging of professional over personal, is one he will always make, and his wife Camille is understandably upset when she becomes the “personal” in this episode. Freddie later tells Bel that eventually, “she’ll love me for it,” but whether that’s truth or foolish optimism remains to be seen. Camille would be a more interesting character if it’s the former, but given her romantic-spoiler status in the core Freddie-Bel-Hector triangle, I suspect it will eventually turn out to be the latter.

And then there’s the marvelous Anna Chancellor, whose Lix Storm seems to be getting a bit more background and screen time with a new love interest. (Yes, Lix also invited Freddie into her bed, for reasons that probably had to do with her role as a partial Abi Morgan stand-in, allowing the showrunner to consummate her crush on her favorite character. Let us never speak of it again.) Lix spent much of last season fondly mocking the shenanigans of the kids around her, which made it all the more unsettling when she decided to partake in them. But with Peter Capaldi’s Randall Brown, she sparks against an equal. Brown is a strangely compelling character, somehow managing to balance quirk with gravitas, and Capaldi and Chancellor show how chemistry is done. In the second episode of this season, they exchange glances - just a look, just fleeting expressions — and it’s like an entire relationship in a few seconds.

I haven’t even mentioned how much I like what Morgan is doing with Hector’s neglected wife Marnie, a onetime Betty Draper who just staged a coup in her marriage. I loved how Marnie mentioned Bel when she told Hector that she was done with all but appearances, that by then Bel was not The Other Woman but another example of Hector’s mistreatment of “two smart, beautiful women.”

So yeah, I’m hooked again. Here’s hoping the next four episodes don’t implode quite as much last year’s did.